By BOBBY HORN JR.
HIGHLANDSThey are seen along Main Street in Highlands. Buildings with no signs, blackened or boarded-up windows and seemingly abandoned. Or are they?
Last week during a Town Hall Meeting hosted by Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia Highlands-Lynchburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Jessica Woods stepped forward and told the assembly that she could point out seven game rooms operating within a two-mile radius of her pawn shop on Main Street.
The existence of game rooms drew serious discussion during the meeting with several people speaking to the issue. Why cant you find out where they are and shut them down, asked Kent Nelson to representatives from the sheriffs office and constables office.
Nelson said that the community is being hurt by the businesses and he wanted to know why they were allowed to continue operating.
Chris Montemayor, a vice officer with the Harris County Sheriffs Office, said that shutting down the businesses is not as easy as it sounds. Once a complaint it filed, he said, surveillance and undercover operations must take place. Operating a game room, he noted, is not illegal. However, if there are suspected illegal operations going on such as narcotics trafficking or illegal use of 8-liner machines, then they can become involved.
Operation of 8-liner devices in Texas is governed by a law commonly referred to as the Fuzzy Animal Act which was designed to legalize video arcades which give tickets for prize redemption and crane games that are commonly seen in restaurants and grocery stores and award a winner with a stuffed animal.
The law limits the payout for users of the 8-liners to not more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game or device once, or $5, whichever is less.
Even if a raid is successful, he said, there is little reason for owners to shut the operation down. The problem is these game rooms bring in $30,000 cash-money each week, she said. An arrest is sometimes seen as part of the cost of operating. They get a day in jail and a $500 fine. He noted that citizens should call their representatives in Austin and push for harsher penalties. We can only do what the law allows, he said.
Montemayor said that the department is looking at ways of joining with federal agencies that can pursue money-laundering cases.
While they may be operating legally, there are those in the community who want the game rooms to leave.
From a moral standpoint, said First Baptist Church Pastor Tim Edwards, They offer an enticement to those who are in desperate need financially. The game rooms offer a false sense of financial security, they foster an addictive behavior, they are not productive and not the kind of image that we want for Highlands.
Edwards said that it is a well known fact that game rooms have been linked to other criminal activity and that he is concerned that it is bringing a bad element into Highlands. Why are they coming to Highlands? he asked.
If a visitor comes to Highlands and sees these businesses are they going to want to stop and shop here, or keep driving to another town.
Edwards said that he has not spoke about gambling and game rooms from the pulpit directly but that he believed that the churchs role was to give the community something to place their trust in other than the game rooms.
Woods said that the chamber of commerce has not taken an official stance on game rooms but that personally she did not like having them in Highlands. The best way to fight them, she said, is for business owners to monitor those whom they rent to.
Garcia told the assembly that the best way to fight the game rooms is to call the sheriffs office if they suspect illegal activities are occurring. This is called demonstrating a need. You have to create a paper trail.
Capt. Michael Talton, with the Harris County Sheriffs Office, said that he has been working in the Wallisville office for three years and he could not recall a single complaint made against a game room. This surprised Woods. I could not believe no one has called to complain, she said. People are talking about the issue. I guess we need to take our concerns to the sheriffs office.
By BOBBY HORN JR.